Gaius Cironius Agnus Paulus is a prince of the Dobunni, son of a senator of Rome, a man truly privileged in these declining decades of Roman rule in Britain. But in AD 362 Paul is trapped in a stream, naked with a sword at his throat, ready to accept his fate as punishment for what he has become – a banished son and brother, a sinner, whose life is forfeit. But when Paul is saved by a peasant, Victor, the two are given a fresh start, discovering new lives in the most desperate and unlikely of circumstances. They are pressganged into the Roman army and are sent north to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. The depleted and ill-provisioned forces are expecting trouble and they get it. The Picts and the other northern tribes are joining together, ready to take on Rome. The threat, though, doesn’t come from the north alone. The longer Paul fights on the edge of empire, the more he learns about the other dangers facing Roman Britain. There comes a point when Paul must weigh up the fear of returning home to the southern hills against his need to save his family.
This alone would make The Lion and the Lamb a potentially gripping novel but there is so much more to it than that. Much of the action focuses on Paul and the men, including Victor, that he fights alongside and become his brothers, but the narrative is divided into three. We also follow the story of Amanda, Paul’s younger sister who only now learns that Paul may still be alive. Her concerns, though, are more immediate. Her powerful father is being marginalised by the powers that rule Roman Corinium and Glevum. He needs to marry Amanda off to a wealthy landowner. Meanwhile, Amanda grows closer to her cousin Patricia, a young woman who is completely transformed by the times. Personal suffering makes many turn to Christ. Early Christianity or, more particularly, the early Christian Church in Britain, is a strong theme in The Lion and the Lamb and it is fascinating.
The third narrative follows an Irish slave girl Eachna who is saved in more ways than one by the Bishop Ludo and his gentle preacher and teacher Julian. The fates throw Eachna together with Paul and the two of them make a treacherous journey across a ravaged and savaged country to the south. There is no time to lose.
The action of the novel is second to none. It races along, with punchy skirmishes and battles along the Wall and the northern reaches of the land. It is brutal. Life is short and cheap. In these days, the Roman army is a shadow of what it once was – numbers are depleted, uniforms are ‘localised’ and swords are scarce. Paul and Victor are thrown into the thick of it and they suffer as much from their fellow soldiers as they do the enemy. Paul spends much of his time battered and cut, imprisoned and haunted by dreams. Life on the wall is vividly recreated. Here are scenes in towns and forts that we know so well from archaeology and John Henry Clay makes them ring to the sound of marching hobnail boots once more.
What turns The Lion and the Lamb into one of the best Roman reads I’ve had this year is the mix of action with character and in this book, a relative rarity in Roman historical fiction, the female characters are to my mind as successful as the male. Through the combination of stories we are shown a broad stripe of life in the later 4th century in Britain. We see the state of the army but we also get a good glimpse of local politics (on the Wall and in Gloucestershire), Roman villa and farm economics, family and marriage, the early Christian Church and its relationship to paganism, the influence of the imperial capital in Gaul, all with a healthy dose of conspiracy, warfare, villainy and suspicion to get the pulse quickening.
I liked Paul very much – he’s a complex individual. Eachna is a good match for him. The relationship doesn’t develop in an obvious way. It’s gently done. Amanda has her patrician prejudices but she learns just as much as Paul does.
This is a period of British history that I know little about but John Henry Clay showed me just how fascinating it is, demonstrating how old ideas and ways of life were changing as they were confronted with the new. The Roman invasion was as long ago to the characters of this novel as the English Civil War is to us in the UK today. Some aspects of Roman life seem familiar but others are very different indeed. Clay is also hugely successful at bringing places that I’ve visited a great deal to life – such as Chedworth and Great Witcombe villas. These villas are no longer just ruins to me. The back of the book includes a very useful list of old and new place-names which is well worth keeping an eye on as you read along.
I am a big fan of Roman military fiction and I especially love it when it brings together aspects of other lives beyond the battlefield or barracks. John Henry Clay is especially good at this. There is so much to think about in The Lion and the Lamb and it has transformed my opinion of the declining years of the Roman Empire.